It’s a party! Not only are we celebrating Canada Day this week in the Anti-Gloom Zoom Room, but Ryan, Rob, and Steve also raise a glass and talk to Albert Ruel, Get Together With Technology Coordinator for the Canadian Council of the Blind, who is officially retiring. We talk about his career as an employee of the CNIB and CCB as well as aspects of technology and even how he initially lost his sight.
This is a long read, and shows how one person can make a huge difference in the lives of those who are touched.
Cherished Teacher, Mentor, Author, Advocate, and Leader
From the Editor: Unlike most articles that appear in the Braille Monitor, this one does not begin with a byline. The person who helped put it together chose to express her love for Jerry Whittle by organizing the heartfelt tributes that follow, and Rosie Carranza should know that we see her handiwork in this article and the love it represents. One other person has worked to coordinate this collection of the tributes that spring from love, and you will not be surprised to learn that this silent contributor is none other than Pam Allen. I am taking the liberty of including the remarks she sent in forwarding this article in the tributes that follow this introduction.
What is abundantly clear is that many of Jerry’s starfish have returned to the sea. They have not taken their new lease on life for granted; they have taken the time to say thank you. They have recognized the blessings received and have made a conscious choice to pass on and add to those blessings with their own commitment of energy, love, dedication, and passion.
Jerry and I shared one thing in common; we both enjoy reading and writing. Debbie and I had the joy of vacationing once with Merilynn and Jerry, and both of us spent a lot of time on benches while our wives searched the stores of North Carolina looking for treasures that begged for a new home. I hope you enjoy reading this tribute to Jerry Whittle as much as I have enjoyed editing it. Thank God for this man, and thank God for the people who cared enough to stop and say thank you.
In 1985 the Louisiana state legislature gave funding to the NFB of Louisiana to establish the Louisiana Center for the Blind. Inspired by my own life-changing rehabilitation experience, I wanted to replicate the ground-breaking training model that Dr. Jernigan used to teach me and countless other blind people in Iowa. My search for Center staff led me to Jerry and Merilynn Whittle, whom I heard about through the “blind grapevine.” I called them up, explaining that we were only awarded one year of funding and that we had no building, no equipment, and no students. Essentially our empowering NFB philosophy and our nonvisual training methods were the two forces pushing our dream forward.
Jerry and Merilynn did not hesitate; they immediately agreed to become part of our pioneering team of instructors. Jerry came first, and when her job concluded, Merilynn arrived in Louisiana. They brought with them an unwavering belief in blind people, a deep loyalty to the Federation, a joyous energy, and a willingness to sacrifice and give to others. They were dependable and so hardworking; they worked day and night to launch the Center.
Soon we had our inaugural group of students. Our first training center operated out of a four-room house. Mismatched donated furniture and lively chatter filled the space. The Braille classroom that Jerry and his students occupied had a large table that was made by attaching legs to an old door.
Even in the early years of his teaching career, Jerry recognized that his job as Braille instructor was just the beginning. He fulfilled the roles of counselor and mentor. He spoke with students about their futures, what jobs they could do, and what they could become as blind people.
With great enjoyment, Jerry also dispensed love advice to those seeking a partner. For instance, he warned, “You should never marry someone unless you have traveled with them on a trip. You learn a lot on these trips that might influence your decision.” More broadly, he told students “If you want to succeed in life, you must look at your fatal flaws and change them. We all have them.” Jerry had such a tremendous sense of humor. When crossing a street, you could hear Jerry shouting, “Oh, feet, don’t fail me now!” And, oh my, did Jerry get after students if they were slacking or not fulfilling their potential. These are just some of the phrases and techniques that I witnessed Jerry using as tools to create bridges to the lives of his students.
The most significant thing that Jerry gave us was the “minor ingredients,” the invaluable elements that made our dream of creating a fun and productive training center come true. Jerry developed many traditions and pursued projects that engaged the varied interests of Center students. He started a garden, devised creative fundraising activities, and organized many trips to festivals, movies, concerts, flea markets, and sporting events. He formed a blind football team and wrote many plays. He started a Toastmasters group to provide students the opportunity to enhance their public speaking skills. He planted trees with the students to beautify the city and to memorialize students or staff who had passed away. Jerry also awarded “Whittle sticks” to recognize the Braille achievements of his students. He carefully selected tree branches that he lovingly made into beautiful walking sticks that his students eagerly worked to earn.
Jerry started our freedom bell tradition. He began ringing the bell whenever a student conquered a challenge or met an important milestone—crossing a busy street, reading at a certain speed in Braille, getting married, or becoming employed. He would say, “When the bell sounds, all blind people have gained new ground.”
Yes, Jerry, you have and will continue to help the blind gain new ground. Your life is a real tribute to our dream.
Jerry Whittle’s life was changed when he found the National Federation of the Blind, and the lives of thousands of blind people were changed as well. I first met Jerry while organizing a chapter of the NFB of South Carolina near Jerry’s hometown of Central located in the northwest corner of the state. Jerry served in numerous leadership roles both nationally and in the NFB of South Carolina and was integral in the development of programs at the Federation Center of the Blind (the NFB of South Carolina headquarters) and Rocky Bottom Retreat and Conference Center of the Blind. His penultimate (Jerry’s favorite word) achievement, however, was his over thirty years of service as the Braille instructor at the Louisiana Center for the Blind.
As a young man, Jerry played his beloved sport of baseball. He discovered his blindness while playing one night in a lighted stadium and finding that he could not see the ball as it sailed to him at second base. This was a whole new world to Jerry and one in which he struggled to adapt. Early on, he found little encouragement about his future from his vocational rehabilitation counselor who, as Jerry once told me, suggested that he go into a workshop or janitorial work. But Jerry knew intuitively that he could do more with his life. He responded to a public service announcement by Dr. Kenneth Jernigan, and thus began the journey to realizing his dreams for a literary career. He graduated from Clemson University, and his academic success led to graduate school at the University of Tennessee where he earned a masters in creative writing.
Jerry and I shared so many memorable times as friends and colleagues. I remember most vividly our NFB work and the adventures around our pioneering establishment of the Louisiana Center for the Blind in Ruston under the leadership of Joanne Wilson. Always at his side, Merilynn shared in all of our triumphs as we celebrated the accomplishments of our students and the growth of the Center. From the acorn grew the strong oak of Jerry Whittle.
He brought the gift of Braille literacy to thousands of blind people, sprinkling his lessons with philosophy and high expectations. Throughout his tenure as a teacher and beyond, Jerry continued to pursue his love of writing, producing plays to inspire and engage blind actors and publishing a number of fictional and autobiographical works. Jerry was Godfather to my oldest son, Nicholas, and we are blessed to have many of his original manuscripts of his plays. How grateful we all are that Jerry did not succumb to the low expectations of the early guidance about his career choices. How fortuitous that he found the NFB, and how truly fortunate that the world and thousands of blind people found him. By knowing Jerry and loving him, our lives have been enriched beyond measure, and he will always reside in our hearts and minds.
Roland Allen (LCB alumnus, 1987)
It is so hard to describe adequately the impact Jerry Whittle had on me. When I enrolled at the Louisiana Center for the Blind shortly after my high school graduation, I did not consider myself to be blind, and I was not sure what to think about the idea of blind instructors. Jerry had a unique way of meeting people where they were and helping them to discover themselves, conquer their fears, and build self-confidence—to realize that it was respectable to be blind. Regardless of a person’s life experiences, he would find a way to connect. I knew early on in my training how important the National Federation of the Blind was to him, how it had changed his life in ways he shared with us. Though we certainly worked on Braille, and I learned to read and write with confidence, we also tackled other philosophical topics in Braille and outside of class. Jerry and Merilynn were always ready for an adventure and encouraged all of us to join in, even if it was something we might never have experienced before. They showed us how to seek and find beauty in the small miracles of life and how to live each day to the fullest. Jerry was always honest and genuine. He listened and gave advice and was not afraid to challenge me and my fellow students to push the boundaries imposed by society and the low expectations about blindness we faced.
Like Jerry, I have retinitis pigmentosa, and I was reluctant to travel in unfamiliar places, especially at night or in dimly lit venues like movie theaters. Jerry and I had discussed this at length, and he knew that I would always go to the movies with a friend or sibling. He invited me and some other students to the movies one evening. Before the movie began, he showed me how to use my cane to navigate around the theater and find my seat. Because of his encouragement and belief in me, I applied what he taught and independently found my own seat. I can remember the pride I felt as I turned to yell to him from several rows ahead “I did it!” Jerry knew that accomplishing this “little thing” in life would be one of the many building blocks that allowed me to grow and achieve those “big milestones” later in life. I had no idea then that I would ultimately become a cane travel instructor helping people overcome their fears and replace self-doubt with hope as he did for me. Jerry was, and still is, an amazing role model for me in the ways he gave above and beyond the call of duty. He always took time to listen, to give without counting the costs, to share his love of the Federation, and to find ways to cultivate talents in others. Later, when I began to work at the Center, I continued to learn from him as a colleague and peer. He kept dispensing advice and wisdom and even gave a toast at my wedding.
Most importantly, Jerry was my beloved friend! I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that I could count on him. And I know today that he knows he can count on me to continue to challenge myself and push myself and my students beyond what we thought was possible, to share the lessons he taught me and so many, and to continue his legacy through my work at LCB and in the National Federation of the Blind. Every time Pam and I see a movie, one of our favorite pastimes, we will smile and think of him. I will forever be indebted.
Jesse Hartle (LCB alumnus, 1997)
While attending my church service tonight, my priest said that we know God loves his children because he always provides for them. If that is true, then I can only assume that it is also true that Jerry Whittle loved his students, because he always gave to them. When we had concerns, he gave us his counsel. If we were having a rough day, he gave us his humor. When we thought we would never improve our reading or writing skills, he gave us encouragement. When we accomplished a goal, he gave us a pat on the back for a job well done. If we were slacking off, he gave us a swift kick in the pants. He gave us knowledge through Braille. He gave us Austen, Brontë, Dostoyevsky, Hemingway, Faulkner, Tolstoy, Steinbeck, and many more. Jerry Whittle was never just an eight-to-five instructor. He gave us his time.
Students were always welcome to join the Whittles for a Friday night trip to the movies, a Louisiana Tech football game, a night at the theater, an afternoon at the flea markets, or a myriad of activities outside of normal class time at the LCB. He gave us challenges that would make us better the next day than we were before, whether that meant stepping out on stage or stepping on to the football field. He gave us a view of his faith, and he certainly showed us his love for Ms. Merilynn. Every single day, Jerry Whittle gave us his all so that we might succeed.
When I was twelve years old, I was a quitter. I was accepted into the Louisiana Center for the Blind’s Buddy Program, but after three weeks I decided to quit. Frankly, it was just too hard to learn the nonvisual skills my counselors were trying to teach. This decision of course was a mistake, but from mistakes come opportunities to learn. While waiting on my parents to come and take me home, I was invited to go to lunch with Mr. Whittle. Knowing what I now know about Jerry Whittle, this was not just a kind gesture. It was another opportunity to do what he loved—to do his best to teach blind people that blindness did not have to dictate the terms of their life. That day I heard the story of someone who had experienced all that I was experiencing at that moment. Mr. Whittle had been told by sighted people about the limited jobs available to a blind person. Only he had a different plan which did not include settling for such low expectations. He discussed the important role that the training he received played in accomplishing his goals. I remember admitting to him at some point in the conversation that I could understand how the cane could be useful for me, but I could not see the point in learning Braille. He explained that a blind person had to develop a well-rounded set of skills to maximize chances for success. For example, if you were the best traveler in the world, but you could not read, you would probably not be able to get a job. Likewise, if you had great technology skills, but you did not have the ability to match your own clothes, you probably were not going to keep a job. While I now understand this thought process, to a stubborn twelve-year-old boy, this man clearly did not realize that he was talking to me, the exception to the rule.
However, during the next year his words would come back to me. I began to question myself when certain situations came up. Was I choosing not to go to the movies like other people my age because I really didn’t like movies or because I did not have the travel skills to maneuver in dark places? Was reading just stupid, or did I not like it because I could only read around twelve words per minute on a CCTV? An honest self-evaluation told me that in most cases I was letting blindness dictate the terms of my life. I knew that the annual NFB of Louisiana student seminar in Ruston was approaching, so I began to put a mental list of questions together about how blind people could accomplish certain tasks. I remember getting off the bus and walking into the activity center, where dinner was already underway. And there at the front of the line, waiting to show those of us who did not know how to serve our own plate, was Jerry Whittle, once again leading by example. If you have been privileged to know Jerry Whittle, you know that my story is not unique. All I had to do was scroll through my Facebook feed on the days around his passing to see the affect that this man had in the lives of blind people. We may not have cleared every bar that he set for us, but it was not because he did not expect us to! What a world it would be if we all lived like Jerry Whittle taught us, by striving to be better tomorrow than we are today. I will miss you Dr. Dots, but I will never forget our lunch on that Monday afternoon in July 1991. The food the waiter brought was generally forgetful, but the food for thought you served was life changing.
Zach Shore (LCB alumnus, 1988)
I first met Jerry Whittle in June of 1988 when I arrived as a student at the Louisiana Center for the Blind. I last spoke with him at length by phone in April of 2017. In those three decades I never stopped marveling at what he had to teach me. It was so much more than Braille.
The greatest teachers are not great because of what they teach. They are great because of what they give. Jerry Whittle gave so much to so many. He gave us his words through the books, plays, and stories he wrote about the blind and our struggles for dignity. He gave us his wit through his corny humor, puns, and word plays. He once quipped that old Braille teachers never die; they just get de-pressed. He gave us his wisdom; that nothing is ever granted freely to the blind. If we want equality, we have to earn it. We have to help our blind brothers and sisters as well; he showed that through his work in the NFB. Sometimes, it’s not fair, but gritty determination sure beats self-pity and sloth.
Above all he gave us his warmth through the love he ceaselessly showed to those around him. He would stay late at work to help a student finish reading his first Braille book or write her first Braille sentence with a slate and stylus. He would organize a literary night at his home with his wife Merilynn to instill in us a love of reading. It seemed to me that he knew no off-hours. Quietly, reliably, selflessly, he simply offered what he had. I hope he knew how much we profited from all the gifts he gave. Thank you, Mr. Whittle. We miss you beyond words.
I was introduced to Mr. Whittle through a dear college friend. I needed some extra cash, and Mr. Whittle needed a reader. The friend who introduced us said Mr. Whittle and I would become fast friends; however, little did I realize that my part-time gig would grow into a genuine friendship that would have a lasting impact on my future.
Anyone who knew Mr. Whittle knew about his aversion to technology. Part of my job was to bridge the gap between the world of computers and the world of Jerry Whittle. My first project was to help him type and edit a manuscript for one of his plays. I quickly came to realize that our business relationship was atypical, because our work tasks often veered into witty conversations about Mr. Whittle’s life. He certainly didn’t mind that our paid hours of reading time usually descended (or ascended) into colorful stories of his past and present.
On occasion Mr. Whittle would have me read through Braille book catalogs, from which he selected literature for the Louisiana Center for the Blind library. When I became curious about Braille, Mr. Whittle eagerly put a Braille block in my hand and began to teach me. This was, as well, on his time. He didn’t mind.
I also assisted him by going through his numerous emails. Mr. Whittle had a social network before social networking was cool. He received countless emails every day from friends, family, colleagues, coworkers, and strangers. He answered every single one. I learned a lot about a lot of people I didn’t know—the NFB, Federationists, the LCB, the Braille Authority of North America, former students, and many more. Mr. Whittle and I spent hours engaged over the content of all those emails. I asked Mr. Whittle one time if he knew he was paying me to hang out with him. And he said, “I know that Mandi…don’t you?”
During my time spent as Mr. Whittle’s reader, all of the misconceptions I had about blindness and Braille vanished. After graduation I went home for a while and tried to begin my life as a college graduate. But in the back of my mind I knew what I wanted; I wanted to teach blind kids. I didn’t realize it at the time, but Mr. Whittle had been molding me with his stories and with his passion for Braille.
I applied for the O&M and TBS programs at Louisiana Tech University and went back to Ruston. And in the year and a half that followed I gained invaluable experience, achieved my master’s, met my husband, and received multitudes of opportunities that got me to where I am now. Today I am teaching Braille and encouraging my students to live the lives they want. My job as Mr. Whittle’s reader became secondary to what I gained from knowing him. Much of who I am now I attribute to the influence that he had on my life. I can say with all honesty that if not for Mr. Whittle, I would not have the fulfilling life that I have today.
Karl Smith (LCB alumnus and Chairman of the LCB Board of Directors, 1989)
I first met Jerry Whittle in 1988. I was on a tour of the Louisiana Center for the Blind, where I became a student in 1989. I was immediately impressed with his commitment and passion for the importance of Braille and also with his encouragement that I set goals that push me outside my comfort zone in all aspects of life. It was during this tour that I first heard Jerry say, “If you want to kill time, you have to work it to death.” And “We’re not running a happy home for the blind here.”
During my training, Jerry helped me build my Braille reading speed and taught me to make the slate and stylus a working tool. As valuable as these lessons were, I found that I learned some of the most important things about myself, my blindness, and what it meant to live the life I wanted to live outside Braille class. These informal life lessons occurred during many conversations that we had after hours, over a burger, or over a glass of muscadine juice. It was during these discussions that Jerry suggested that a few of us get together and produce and act in a play. Two fellow students, Jamie Lejeune and Jennifer Dunnam, and I along with Jerry, produced and performed John Brown’s Body, a play based on the epic poem by Steven Vincent Benét. We performed this play for the Ruston community at the Louisiana Tech University Theater.
This experience served as the foundation for the subsequent plays that Jerry Whittle would write and direct, casting Center students like myself to perform at national conventions for more than twenty-five years, with the proceeds going to support the Buddy Program at the Louisiana Center for the Blind. He believed so strongly in giving our blind children the skills for success and immersion in the positive philosophy and mentoring of the National Federation of the Blind. Because of these experiences, I auditioned for and was selected as a lead player in a musical presented at the Promise Valley Playhouse in Salt Lake City in 1993 and 1994. I would never have had the courage to attempt such a thing without Jerry’s encouragement. Needless to say, I learned my lines for all these plays with a Braille script. Jerry continued to be a good friend and mentor in the years since I graduated from the Center. I value all the times we had together talking, joking, playing poker, and solving the world’s problems. I will miss him greatly, but I will always value his wisdom and strong values.
Angela Frederick (LCB alumna, 1995)
How does one begin writing about a man who was such a powerful influence on the lives of his students? Of course, I immediately think of the gift of Braille literacy and the love for reading and writing Jerry Whittle gave to his students. But it was the special way he offered this gift that made Mr. Whittle such a force for change in his students’ lives. Mr. Whittle had a unique way of recognizing the core of his students and offering them a version of literacy which spoke to that core. “Oh, you’re interested in presidential history” he would say. “I have an amazing book about Abraham Lincoln for you.”
I am a sociologist now. My life’s work is teaching, researching, and writing in the academy. I can trace much of my love for reading and learning to Jerry Whittle. The beautiful Braille library he built at the Louisiana center was the first library I entered that felt like it was built for me. During my summers I spent at LCB as a teenager and young adult, I would spend hours looking through his vast collection of books. I would have to stand on chairs to reach the top of the mountains of pages he created along the walls of the Braille Room and the center library.
As a young person growing up in Louisiana, I was desperate for information about the larger world. One of the most well-read people I had met, Mr. Whittle’s presence felt like a gateway to something bigger for me. I always tried to finagle my way to sit next to him to soak up all of his wisdom. And I would always find myself gravitating to the Braille room, where I knew some kind of lively conversation would be happening between Mr. Whittle and his students.
Jerry Whittle had a unique capacity to love you dearly and scold you, all in the same breath. He didn’t hesitate to give you the world’s greatest compliment or take you down a notch, depending on his assessment of what you needed to hear that day. In between explaining how to remember the Braille letter E and telling his infamous jokes to keep us on our toes, Mr. Whittle would offer his students little nuggets of life wisdom in the LCB Braille Room. And one nugget of wisdom he offered me as a young adult has stayed with me for decades, “Truly smart people can create the world they want to live in.” We love you, Mr. Whittle.
Louise Walch (LCB alumna, 2006)
First there was Louis Braille, and then there was Jerry Whittle. Doubtless there were some in between, but that was the sequence for me. If there were a Braille hall of fame, Mr. Whittle’s face, complete with grey beard, would be up on the wall, larger than life. Between Braille lessons he would tell stories of his college escapades and more about his early days “beating the bushes” to find blind people and organize NFB chapters. During one of my Braille lessons, he mentioned he had been thinking a lot about how blind people don’t tend to play much football, and it wasn’t many weeks after that we all found ourselves measuring up for uniforms. That’s how the first blind football team was formed. We were a motley crew, but you better believe none of us were sitting on the sidelines. We were in the game.
Mr. Whittle was coach on the blind football field and coach in the classroom. We were always strategizing on how to get better and faster at reading Braille. He would regularly time all his students, and on those days when you were really zipping along, he might praise you with one of his signature Whittle phrases like “Wow, you are really tearing up the pea patch.” That was when you knew you could be proud. Or if you were really lucky, he might hand you a can of his favorite Buffalo Rock ginger ale. Or on one of your not-so-hot days he might say, “You sound as nervous as a cat in a room full of rocking chairs.” Then you could have a laugh and get back on the job.
I remember him telling me once about how as a young blind adult he would give himself daily travel assignments. Although he had no orientation and mobility instructor at the time, he would hone his cane skills just by getting out there with a stick and doing it. I’m sure there were many setbacks and a lot of discovery, but in the end, it was his decision to act rather than to be acted upon, that set the upward trajectory for his life.
He encouraged all his students not to be afraid of a little dot five W. That’s Braille shorthand for work.
I was just one of the thousand or more students who sat across the table from him during one of his thirty years of teaching Braille, but any one of those students would tell you that it wasn’t just Braille that he taught; he taught us to believe in blind people, to believe in ourselves. This brand of belief had little to do with platitudes, the kind of empty words you might read on some website. No, his belief was soul deep. Whether you were there sitting across the table from him surrounded by those floor-to-ceiling bookshelves of Braille that he was so proud of or in a raft shooting down whitewater in Tennessee or rehearsing one of the many plays he wrote and directed or donning the helmet for a game of Coach Whittle’s no-kidding-around blind football or just sitting with him in a diner chatting over a bowl of grits, you would know that you were somebody, and here was a man who believed in God and believed that whatever might knock you down, you could get right up again. It might be inconvenient, but it’s okay to be blind. You learned that you had blind brothers and sisters around the country in the NFB who were there for you. Get yourself a good mentor like Mr. Whittle if you can, but just get yourself out the door.
Bre Brown (LCB alumna, 2012)
When I met Mr. Whittle in 2011 as a student at the Louisiana Center for the Blind, he was incredibly welcoming. He made class challenging and entertaining. Yes, we did Braille, but we learned so much about life. He was always sharing stories and educating us about various things, such as how to live on your own as a blind person or how to navigate at a football game or Mardi Gras. He strongly believed every person should go and live independently at least once, in order to set in stone the fact that a person was truly able to be successful and trust themselves. He often shared his passion for nature, flowers, trees, and plants. His love for students was palpable. He always found ways for people to be involved in activities such as plays and cultural events. He also spent time with students to discover what motivated them. For example, Mr. Whittle gave me opportunities to try new things, such as directing one of his plays.
Earlier this year, he asked me to help direct his play, All Shot, performed at this year’s national convention. I never could have imagined it would be his last one. In October he asked me to direct Santa Rides Again, the play he wrote about Santa Claus losing his vision and receiving training at the Louisiana Center for the Blind. Directing the play also involves supervising the choir. I love to sing, and this is a fun and challenging way of using my skills. I really love how he showed everyone, including me, that you can do whatever you desired, including loving life despite blindness. I am thankful for all of his thought-provoking questions he had for me, his encouragement even when I doubted myself, and his way of living life as a pure example—open and honest, loving and caring, with every imperfection acting as a learning opportunity, not a downfall.
Six years ago I had no idea that I would be a Braille teacher. I have always loved Braille, and the National Federation of the Blind showed me that I could be a teacher. As a student I learned so much about teaching Braille from Mr. Whittle through observation. He showed me that just because you know Braille, there are still things you can learn or upon which you can improve. Over the years, he answered any question I had about teaching Braille as I was working in the LCB summer programs. He also instilled in me a belief that Braille class is not just about Braille; there are many important life lessons to learn. Some of it is life skills like budgeting and list creations, discussing student perspectives on blindness, motivating people to continue no matter their circumstance, and truly listening and empathizing with students. I saw from his example that the learning did not stop, even after five.
As we all know, Mr. Whittle was not a fan of technology, but he enjoyed learning about his iPhone. He did learn how to text with dictation. A few years ago, we started texting with each other almost every day. Some days it was just simply saying hello. It was sharing stories, him encouraging me as I continued through college and started my career, talking about vacations, just anything. He often said, “Go get ‘em,” even if it was just going to class, teaching Braille, or doing something totally new.
These exchanges and life lessons meant the world to me as a student and are just pieces of what Mr. Whittle gifted me. He taught me so much that it is difficult to narrow it down. Today, I have the incredible honor of continuing the legacy that Mr. Whittle has built. I am so thankful to keep giving the gift of literacy, the gift of Braille, and to find ways to keep students involved in the National Federation of the Blind to which he gave so much, their communities, and their own lives. “Read until you bleed!”
It is so hard for all of us to capture what Jerry meant to each of us. Words just don’t seem sufficient. I think the suddenness of his passing has made it even more emotional for all of us to absorb. You will see the common thread in these words. The hard thing is there are thousands more where these came from. Jerry was humble and hardworking, loyal and loving, humorous and creative, steady and trustworthy, and not afraid to admit when he was wrong and make amends as needed. He and Merilynn set such a wonderful example as a blind and a sighted role model. The ripples they made will be felt forever! So many whom Jerry taught are now teachers and leaders in the field of blindness. So many are using Braille and his life wisdom to propel themselves forward in other careers outside of blindness. So many are part of our Federation family because of his love and encouragement! He never had biological children but raised many children throughout his time with us.
Jerry always said, “Time is not eternal.” This is just another reminder of how we can never take the time we have for granted nor fail to share our love and appreciation for the people we have in our lives. Jerry always did this!
Dr. Marc Maurer
Jerry Whittle was not only quite knowledgeable about literature, history, philosophy, and education; but he was also a quiet, understated, and most jolly human being. He could find humor in most things, and he was friendly in showing you where it was.
I met Jerry Whittle first in South Carolina, where he was working to bring blind people into our movement. I came to know him even better in Louisiana, when he was teaching Braille. I visited the Louisiana Center for the Blind, and I sat in his classroom with him and students. He asked me if I could read poetry, and I admitted that I could. He said he wanted to record me doing so. I agreed. He turned on the recorder and handed me a copy of “Jabberwocky.” I had never before read “Jabberwocky.” It is a poem that contains many words that do not appear anywhere else in the English language. One of the simpler lines is, “The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!” I did my best. I have no idea what the recording sounded like, but I read the “Jabberwocky.”
Jerry Whittle talked me into doing many things I did not expect to do. He called me to say that football was needed by the blind, and he asked me for money to get the equipment together. I wanted to know what he meant. He said that blind people were going to play football with some rules that he had devised for the game. He said that when you run onto the field and smack into a guy on the other team and knock him flat, this is fun. I, who am smaller than he was, wondered if he could really mean it. I wasn’t as sure that I would enjoy it as he was.
Jerry always believed that he could do something to bring joy to people’s lives, and he was prepared to go the extra mile to do it. He thought that there was not enough literature depicting the reality of blindness. He was helping to solve this problem by writing plays that brought the daily experiences of the blind to life. He worked with his mind, but he also worked with his hands. He made me a walking stick from a piece of blackthorn that I carry still. I love the feel of my Whittle Stick. My life is richer because I knew Jerry Whittle.